Czech Ingenuity Puts New Shine on Endangered Craft
By Sandra Dondenne
After barely making it through the ’90s and limping through the 2008 crash, Bohemia’s fabled decorative glass industry is on the rise again.
20 September 2016
As he strolled down the streets of Paris four years ago while on holiday with his girlfriend, Czech master glass blower Michal Masek spotted something that brought him to a standstill: through a shop window, he saw a set of fine drinking glasses that he had manufactured.
“I felt so happy and proud, it was an amazing feeling,” says the 41-year-old artisan with the north Bohemian company Verreum. “Today, if you go abroad and say you are a Czech glassmaker, it really means something.”
Masek’s memorable moment illuminates how Czech glass, displayed since the 18th century in cities like Vienna or Lisbon, regained international splendor by adapting to 21st century globalization and finding niche markets. Starting in 1989, after four decades of isolation from Western customers under a state-controlled economy, Czech glass firms went through wrenching privatization and restructuring to survive the new competition. Some, however, embraced innovation, welcoming investments and technology from the West, and found their niches on the market. Glass is today one of the most identifiable Czech products, along with Skoda cars and Pilsner Urquell beer. The refinement of Czech glass is recognized worldwide, notably in the Middle East where it is “absolutely number one,” says Michal Mejstrik, director of the Institute of Economic Studies at Charles University in Prague.
Michal Masek at work in Novy Bor, long a center of Bohemian glassmaking.
While Czech decorative glass is best known to tourists, thanks to collaboration with designers, Czech glass is also competitive in other forms, such as container glass for the food and beverage industry, flat glass used in the automotive and building sectors, glass fiber employed in textiles or insulation, and laboratory glass. Each sector had to adapt to trade liberalization following the fall of communism, as the surviving makers cut work forces and embraced new technologies to increase their products’ attractiveness and compete with the lower labor costs of developing countries. From 2002, Czech glass lost market share worldwide against cheaper Chinese glass.
Strongly dependent on customer expectations, decorative glass was particularly sensitive to these changes. “Firms were used to manufacturing low-quality mass products for the Russian market, but these were not the type of goods that were successful in the West,” Mejstrik says. Handmade glass survived in small- and medium-sized enterprises that succeeded in renewing traditional know-how to specialize in products with high margins, such as luxury vessels and lighting fixtures.
National Heritage Reaches World Markets
Bohemian glassware appeared on the scene in the 13th century thanks to abundant natural resources – sand, soda, potash, and wood – which local craftsmen used to produce a glass whose malleability allowed it to be more easily worked and engraved. Starting in the 19th century, the state’s investment in art and technical schools fostered participation in exhibitions like the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. More permissive with glass than with fine arts, the communist regime financed experimentation. Many painters, sculptors, and designers also worked in glass, says former Corning Museum of Glass curator Tina Oldknow. Still, the state monopoly on foreign trade meant that Czech glassmakers were relatively isolated.
New freedom – and new pressures – arrived with the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Between 1990 and 1993, restructuring to adapt to market realities eliminated the jobs of half a million Czechs, including 314,000 industry workers and 10,000 glassmakers, a quarter of the sector. By 1995, two-thirds of exports were re-targeted from the old Soviet bloc to the West: “Soviet banks were running out of money,” Mejstrik explains.
The competition from China especially was an incentive to improve the quality of products. Glassware made with traditional methods could not compete with lower-priced products and exports dropped by 30 percent from 2002 to 2007, while the number of workers in decorative glass fell by almost half to 7,500, according to the Czech Glass and Ceramic Industry Association. During the 2008 economic crisis, major Czech companies like Crystalex went bankrupt, and 5,000 more decorative glass workers lost their jobs between 2007 and 2009. The crisis mostly affected sales of old-fashioned glass, targeting middle-class clients, says the chief executive of glassmaker Czevitrum, Vlastimil Janecky.
New Technologies for Luxury Products
Decorative glass recovered to account for 27 percent of jobs in the Czech glass industry in 2014, and export revenues grew by 85 percent over 2009, driven by sales of luxury products. “Specialized glassmaking is now mushrooming; it’s stunning how successful it is,” Charles University’s Mejstrik says. Because glass production is not homogeneous, compared to the production of car components, high-quality glass cannot result from mass production. Hand-made firms could not lower prices through automation or bigger quantities and have focused on marketing their products as unique. “Our targets are people who want to offer original gifts,” says Janecky, whose glass lamps incorporate LED and touch technology.
Handmade is the key to give customers a sense of exclusivity. Since launching the brand in 2009, Verreum founder Pavel Weiser worked with universities to develop a secret and, he says, unique formula of 99.9 percent pure silver that is injected into double-walled decorative glass, giving it the intense shine and silvery sparkles that made the old, unsafe, and now prohibited mercury glass such a sought-after product.
Starting with eight employees, the company now counts a staff of 20, and with sales growing by 65 percent in 2015, it will soon need more skilled glassmakers.
Early on a July morning, Verreum’s glassmaking studio in the north Bohemian town of Novy Bor hums to a quick rhythm. Michal Masek and his colleagues carry the heavy glass and turn the blowpipe in a colorful ballet. Across the street, a truck waits for containers to be filled with ornamental glass. It’s the point of departure for a long journey to reach retailers: once in the Italian port of Portofino, they will embark on cargo ships for the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas.
Czech decorative glass suffered more than other types of glass from international competition in the 1990s and 2000s, but recovery from the 2008 crisis started earlier, in 2011. Flat glass, container glass, and glass fiber had to wait until 2014 to return to their pre-crisis revenues and employment figures, while technical and laboratory glass still struggle.
Decorative glass has a wider outreach to world markets than other glass products: in 2014, Czech exports of container and flat glass outside Europe did not exceed 5 percent of the industry total, while 35 percent of decorative glass was sold in non-European countries.
Boosted by a process of emulation of foreign competitors, who in turn pick up ideas from Czech makers, Czech handmade glass is being reinvented by masters who combine know-how with new coloring or shaping techniques. According to Czevitrum’s Janecky, luxury glass firms require experienced workers and pay better wages than lower-quality ornament companies. Teamwork is more important, especially for producing big pieces. Looking back, Masek explains, “Ten years ago, the work was more routine and calmer than now. The work has become more demanding but also more interesting.”
Sandra Dondenne works in the fields of communications and filmmaking. She is currently a press officer for the World Trade Organization.
Photos courtesy of Verreum